Rene Visits the European Winter Wonderland

Staff member: Rene // Trip date: Jan 2013

On the 17th of January my girlfriend and I left Melbourne and its 40º weather behind and headed for Europe. After two stops and 21 hours of flying we arrived in the Bavarian Capital of Munich where we were greeted by snow, lots and lots of snow. After waiting for what felt like an eternity our backpacks finally emerged on the convener belt and we made our way into the centre of town. Exhausted we decided to catch a cab which cost around €70 and took around 40 minutes.

The Old Town of Munich is easy enough to navigate on foot, however there is a varied amount of public transport to get around town, including trams, buses and the underground S-Bahn. The famous Beer Halls definitely live up to their names and must be experienced.

Munich - Prague

On the 21st of January we walked to Munich HBF (the main train station in Munich) to catch our train to the Czech capital Prague. The station in Munich is extremely easy to navigate, with all platforms visible from a central thoroughfare. It services local train along with the intercity and international departures. The train we took was run by Czech Rail and was to take around 7 hours. The train itself looked a little out of place among the sleek looking German trains as it was a lot older and run down. However once on board we found that the compartments were cosy and clean. Our 1st class Eurail Passes were already validated and all we had to do was to take a seat and wait for our tickets to be checked. There was plenty of room as the train was quite so we had no problem in finding a compartment by ourselves. A man with a little cart full of sweets and drinks passed through several times during the journey.

Around 5 hours into our journey we noticed our train slowing down in what seemed to be in the middle of the Czech countryside. There was an announcement over the PA in Czech and German which caused noticeable sighs throughout the train. A lady in the next compartment translated to me that the train engine had broken down and we had to wait an hour for a new engine to come and retrieve us. While this was annoying at first we ended up playing cards and the time flew bye.

We finally arrived into Praha Havní Nádraží which is the Central Station in Prague. The station was very large and extremely organised. We easily found our way to the exit and walked to our hotel. Prague itself is quite a large city; however the old town which sits on the Danube River is very easy to traverse on foot.

The first thing we noticed about Prague was how freezing it was, the cold penetrated right into your bones. But it was soon overshadowed of how beautiful it was. Being in the old town, with the snow falling heavily left us almost spellbound.

Prague - Salzburg

After 3 magical nights we departed Prague and headed to the medieval city of Salzburg. Again we had a Czech Railway run train to the town of Linz in Austria, where we had to jump on the National Austrian Railway (OBB) train to Salzburg. The journey itself was extremely smooth, with no hick-ups or changes. The difference, between the Czech and Austrian trains we startling, gone were the compartments and wood panelling, we were now on leather seats with internet connections and freshly delivered coffees and newspapers.

Again the train was mostly empty so finding seats was no problem and there was heaps of room for our bags and sweet treats. The scenery was ever changing, from the small villages of the Czech Republic to the lakes and mountains of Austria.

It had been 9 hours since we had left Prague so we were pretty excited to arrive in Salzburg. The station is located about a 15 minute walk from the medieval old town. Salzburg impresses from the get go. The town is being watched over by a massive fortress along with impressive mountains.

The Old Town holds onto its history with everything it's got. Mozart was slapped onto every item they could. However behind the obvious tourist centre there is amazing array of lane ways and quiet taverns and restaurants.

Salzburg - Hallstatt

Three days later we hoped on another train and headed into the heart of Austria. We boarded an Austrian Inter-City train similar to the one we rode in on. After 2 hours we arrived in the town of Attnang Puchheim to transfer onto an Austrian Regional train. These trains are very similar to the commuter trains we have in Australia (a lot cleaner but mostly the same). There was only the one class and it was obvious we were tourists amid all the locals. It was still spacious and clean with enough space for all our gear. It was noticeably slower but it wasn't long till the towns started getting smaller and the mountains stated getting larger.

After an hour and a half we arrived at a station next to a lake with nothing else around, a single path led down from the station (which was nothing more than a single platform and small hut) to a tiny pier on a massive lake. It was snowing quite hard so it was tough to make the far shore. After about 10 minutes a small ferry pulled up to take us to the other side. About half way through the 10 minutes journey the town of Hallstatt came into view. It is difficult to describe just how insanely beautiful this town was. Flanked by a huge mountain and lake, the town of 150 has one road that runs through the middle, two church steeples are the tallest buildings around. We were only two out of a handful of tourists yet it suited the town perfectly.

Hallstatt - Innsbruck

After 3 nights, plenty of snow, peace and quiet, we crossed the calm lake and boarded the same train we arrived on and travelled back to Attnang Puchheim. From there we jumped on another Inter-City train and sped along to Innsbruck, the capital of the Austrian Alps. Innsbruck is flanked by massive peaks on all sides, with a wide raging river running through the middle. It was plain to see that this was a ski town; almost everybody had donned ugly ski wear and massive woollen hats.

Innsbruck - Venice

We left after 2 nights with our sights set on Italy for some hopefully warmer weather and awesome food. Again we boarded an Austrian Inter-City and headed south. The scenery coming into Italy was a dramatic change; it was nice to see ground not covered in snow. We had a change over in Verona, at which point we boarded a very sleek looking train to head for Venice.

This train was actually run by Swiss Rail and had originated in Zurich. It was by far the nicest train we had been on, with massive seats, bar cart and destination information on touch screens. It took advantage of Italy's high speed lines so it didn't take long till we were arriving in Venice Saint Lucia station.

The station was a lot smaller then I was expecting for a destination such a Venice, so it was easy enough to find our way to the ferry which would lead us to our accommodation. Venice was crazy busy, with roving groups of tourists on every main walkway. However with Venice, all it takes is to move one street away and it feels like you have the whole town to yourself.

Venice - Florence

Two nights later we left the canals and crowds of Venice and headed for Tuscany. We were greeted on our Italian High Speed Train with a comfy leather seat and free snack. This train was impressive not only with its service but also its speed. In only a couple of hours we had reached Florence and departed our fancy train and entered the heart of Tuscany. The main station is right next to the centre of town, it was the first time all trip that we didn't need to wear a heavy coat.

Again it seemed as if it could be high season in Florence with the amount of tourists around, but it was easy to see why there were so many people around; Florence has a lot to offer. It was also a lot cheaper compared to Venice so it made eating out seem a little less painful.

Florence - Riomaggiore (Cinque Terre)

It felt like enough time after 2 nights to make our way to the Italian Coast. We had to catch an Italian Regional Train which was a massive departure to the luxury of the Italian High Speed. The train was crowded but we managed to find a seat together and got settled for our 2 hour journey. It wasn't long until the train emptied and by the time we arrived in La Spezia where we needed to change trains. The scenery went from rolling green hills to snow capped peaks and finally to sea side cliffs.

After boarding our next train in La Spezia, it took a quick 10 minutes of travel to arrive in the tiny sea side hamlet of Riomaggiore. It seemed like a ghost town when we departed our train, but as soon as we emerged from the tunnel walk way into the only street in town we were greeted by locals chatting and kitties meowing (seriously cats were everywhere).
Over the next 3 nights we relaxed, ate seafood, drank wine and explored the 5 towns. Having visited Cinque Terre in the summer it was nice to have the towns to ourselves. It was a shame it was too chilly to swim as the water seemed extremely welcoming.

Riomaggiore - Milan

We sadly said good-bye and made our way to Monterrosso which was the largest town of Cinque Terre. As we boarded our train we soon found ourselves sharing the same cabin as my co-worker Val and her family. It was lovely to catch and swap stories from our travels so far. It wasn't long till we said our goodbyes as they departed in Genoa and we continued to Milan. The train was busy but comfortable with plenty of room for us and our luggage.

As the train pulled into Milan Central Station we were greeted by the most impressive train station we had visited so far. This held true with the rest of Milan with Duomo along with the surrounding city centre to extreme excess. With designer stores and restaurants selling €6 coffees on every corner.
It was easy enough getting around with Milan's Metro system as the city was the largest we had been too since Prague. We were only there for one night as the Swiss Alps we calling us along.

Milan - Gimmewald (Jungfrau Region)

The following morning we jumped on the Metro and headed back to Milan Central and boarded our Swiss Italian train to take us across into neutral territory. The train was extremely comfortable with the largest seats along with the largest windows experienced so far. It made for easy viewing as the scenery grew vertically. As we crossed the border we were greeted by border patrol that checked our passports with expected Swiss stern expressions. Our first stop on our journey into the Alps was the town of Spiez where we waited in the falling snow for our regional train to take us to Interlaken. This train was the most enjoyable so far, it wasn't fancy or fast. It hugged the lakes and cliffs as it cruised along the snow covered tracks, it was the first train that we experienced that we could open the windows and stick our heads out to admire the view.

We arrived shortly after at Interlaken Ost Station where we awaited yet another train to take us to Lauterbrunen. This train was run by a private line so our Eurail Passes we no longer valid, though it did enable us to purchase at a discounted price. We were able to buy the one ticket which would let us take the bus at Lauterbrunen along with the Cable car at Stechelberg which will take us up to our final destination of Gimmewald.

The Gondola is the only way to reach Gimmewald in the Winter (unless climbing my foot) and runs every 30 minutes, Upon arriving at Gimmewald station you can catch he next cable car up to the ski village of Murren and then another to the summit of Schilthorn. I discovered Gimmewald 7 years ago on my gap year after school and stayed 2 weeks in the town. Ever since leaving I have promised myself that I would return.

The town has around 50 permanent residents but is often full of travellers from every nation. It hadn't changed much over the years and it took some getting used to all the snow (never seen so much snow in my life)

Gimmewald - Les Diablerets (Lake Geneva Region) via Golden Pass Line

After 3 short (far too short) nights we sadly departed Gimmewald and headed down the mountain towards France. At Interlaken we boarded another Regional train and headed for Zwieimmen where we were to board the Golden Pass Line scenic train. Upon arriving at the station we laid eyes on the Golden Train, it looked impressive (it was so shiny). We had booked the panoramic seats for this which were located at the very front of the train with the driver above you. This gives you an incredible view of the scenery ahead of us. At first it brought back memories of being on a roller coaster, but the quick stomach lurching drop never came. As it was a scenic train it is not something you would take if in a hurry. The Golden Pass slowly meanders up into the mountains and stops at a few stations along the way. The most impressive moment of the journey was on our approach into Montreux. At one point you are surrounded by mountains and then you head into a tunnel, as you exit you are greeted we the most spectacular view of Lake Geneva. For the next 30 minutes the train makes it way down into the town, the whole time the massive lake looms like a dark sea ahead of you.

We arrived in Montreux and immediately hopped on an Inter-City to take us 10 minutes to the town of Aigle. Here we were greeted by my Father's extended family. Together we drove (it felt bizarre being in a car again) up into the ski village of Les Diablerets where the family owns a chalet. Though they speak limited English and I speak no French it was hard at first to make conversation. It is times like this where wine makes the greatest of translators.

Les Diablerets - Bern

Two nights later we had to say our goodbyes and make our way down the mountain (by train this time) and headed to Lausanne. At Lausanne we boarded a double story Inter-City which took us to Bern. This train was massive; there were lounge chairs, restaurants, children playroom and large bathrooms. It was quiet on board so we had the entire carriage to ourselves.

Arriving at Bern was impressive as well as the station is very modern and very clean. While Bern is clean it definitely has an old world charm about it. It seemed to be very bustling for such a small city, with markets and cafes full of locals. However at night it's as if no one stays out past 10pm, it was so surreal walking the streets at night with snow falling all around us.

Bern - Paris

The next day we awoke early to catch our 7am departure to Paris, as we entered the station along with an army of locals heading to work we were surprised to see staff of the Swiss Rail Company handing out sandwiches to everyone. I am not too sure if this happens often, but it was a tasty example of Swiss hospitality. We were to take the French - Swiss Lyria TGV to Paris, which was a handsome train indeed. We boarded and took our massive first class seats and settled in. Even though the train was busy there was plenty of room for everyone's luggage. We were served hot towels and a light breakfast. Tea and coffee was also offered throughout the trip. As we crossed the border we started using the French high speed lines, I have never been so fast on land before. Unfortunately there were no displays of speed anywhere, which was a shame.

We arrived at Paris Gare de Lyon 5 hours after leaving Bern. We found our way easily out the station and boarded the bus and headed for our accommodation. Paris has never surprised me; it is exactly what you expect it to be. This is not a bad thing at all as it is still beautiful and totally absorbing. But there is not much to say that hasn't been said before. That said, we loved it, there was so much to see and do that it gets overwhelming (the crowds especially).

Paris - Barcelona via Elipsos Hotel Train

After 3 nights in the City of Lights (sweet rhyme) we packed our bags and got ready for our next journey. We had quite a wait as our train wasn't leaving until after 10 pm, we made the most of the day and boarded our moving hotel for the night. I have only taken one night train in my life (Budapest to Prague) which was no more than sleeping on seats so I had high hopes for this train. I was not disappointed. You are greeted by the staff and shown to your cabin. We had the Gran Class which had twin bunks along with an en suite. While the cabins are pretty small, there was enough room for our bags and our selves. The shower was hot and had decent pressure. The most impressive part of the train though was the food. We had dinner inclusive along with beer, wine and champagne, everything went down a treat and with a full stomach we slept peacefully in our bunks.

We awoke early the next morning and went to breakfast in time to watch the sunrise over Spain. The stark contrast between Spain and the rest of Europe countryside was immediately apparent. Gone were the forests and mountains, we now had great fields of rock and grass. It also looked much warmer which was a huge relief.

We arrived into Barcelona and jumped on the easy to navigate Metro to take us to our hostel. Barcelona surprised me more than anywhere, the difference between the old town and the newer suburbs was incredible, and where ever we walked there seemed to be some festival or celebration about something. Tapas and Sangria while watching a parade of men and women dressed as pirate's blast each other with Blunderbuss's is something to experience.

Barcelona - Madrid

After 4 nights we set our sights on our final destination of Madrid. We arrived at Barcelona Sants and proceeded to purchase our reservations for the train. They were extremely organised, only passengers with tickets are allowed on the platforms which lessened the amount of congestion on the platforms and made it extremely easy to board the train. We were taking a Spanish RENFE high speed train to Madrid. It was as if we saved the best train for last, the Spanish trains were amazing. On board we were handed headphones and a welcome drink. We took our seats and settled in, a light lunch was served at our seats while we travelled along at 300kph (we had a screen this time). The train also offered a bar with hot food.

Arriving into Madrid Atocha station had the feeling of arriving at an airport. Families and Chauffeurs greeted us as we exited into the main station. We quickly grabbed a taxi and headed 10 minutes into town. After Barcelona Madrid seemed grungy and quite uninteresting. However as soon as the sun goes down it turns into a different place. Madrid is the city for night owls, the locals don't go for dinner till 10pm, bars and clubs are quiet till midnight. It is unlike any place I have ever been. We met up with some friends of ours and tried to do as the locals do (and failed, we were asleep by 12pm)

Home Sweet Home

Two nights later we headed for the airport to finally return to Australia as well as to reality, it had been 6 weeks of some of the most amazing cities and towns in Europe. Travelling through the many towns and countries was smooth and most importantly quick with the entire European rail network. The ease of arriving and departing from the centre of town along with the amazing scenery which can only be reached by rail made it even more enjoyable.

While it is always good to be home, there will always be a new journey to look forward too.

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